A few hundred
yards west of the ancient white lighthouse on the point of Diamond Head, a
light that once warned whalers of the treacherous rocks and coral that lie just
offshore and now beckons millions of tourists, the long, sleek koa wood racing
canoe slipped inside the reef. For the next two miles the six bronzed crewmen
sliced across the esplanade of Waikiki, 14 strokes on the left, 14 strokes on
the right. Surfers wiped out their runs, visitors swam hastily to safety, and
in the big tourist outriggers waiting for waves on the reef line beach boys
stood up and cheered while their mainland passengers stared in certain
At the western
end of Waikiki the racers rounded the stubby Hilton Pier and drove straight up
onto the sands of Duke Kahanamoku Beach. The Waikiki Surf Club had once again
won the annual Molokai-to- Oahu outrigger race, its 11th victory in the 21 tries
since 1952 when the event was established. In doing so Surf had paddled 41
miles across the infamous Molokai Channel in six hours one minute and 46
seconds. The race ended in the mock pomposity of the Aloha King's Court, a
festival finish that entertains the thousands who come to Hawaii for Aloha Week
but one that has always deprived it of recognition as one of the world's most
grueling aquatic events. "That's quite a stunt," said a milk-skinned
coast haole (mainland Caucasian), one of some 5,000 who jammed the hot sands
around the final mark. An estimated 20,000 more watched Surfs sprint to the
finish from hotel beaches the length of Waikiki.
It is no stunt.
It is, in fact, hard to imagine any team event in any sport that demands longer
and more arduous preparation and presents a cruder challenge as its climax.
Certainly no Olympic category can match its relentless pressure—or its pure
amateurism. Olympic gold medalists endorse products, get perquisites and even
appear as comedians (comedians?) on the Bob Hope show. The winner of
Molokai- Oahu gets $500 for the club treasury. The nine athletes who make up a
boat's crew (three relief paddlers are permitted) get nothing but a bundle of
flower leis and, presumably, a certain amount of tender, loving post-race
Surfs victory time was about 16 minutes short of the modern record for the
crossing (5:45:16, set by the Outrigger Club in 1968), it was won under
unspeakable weather conditions—unspeakable for canoeing, that is. The trade
winds had been missing for almost a fortnight in one of Hawaii's most prolonged
and agonizing hot spells. The temperature was 88� on race day, two degrees off
the record high for Oct. 15, and the Molokai Channel made its own peculiar
contribution to the rigors of the day—it went flat. Instead of the usual
four-to six-foot sea, there were one-foot swells. Instead of cooling 15- to
25-mph winds, there was a vagrant breeze that seldom got above six to eight
mph. The day before, Surf Paddler Andy Miller, sweating in the sun at Hale O
Lono Harbor, a windless cliff-enclosed seashell of a place on Molokai where the
race begins, had said: "For us, the rougher the better. It is harder to
paddle, but you are wet all the time and it keeps you cool. If it is like today
it will be like paddling in an oven."
It was even more
like today than today was. At seven a.m. the paddlers, coaches and escort
personnel of the competing clubs gathered around the launch point to hear the
Rev. Mitchell Pauole bless the race and ask for heavenly support for the
contestants ( Hawaii blesses everything—until they are blessed, brand-new
blacktop highways are posted: "This road not yet dedicated—proceed at your
own risk"). As the crews carried their canoes into the water, Chris Faria,
president of the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association, said: "These guys are
gonna have to paddle all the way. Nobody gonna help 'em—nobody down here,
nobody up there." In a rough sea an outrigger canoe often can surf down big
waves, thus attaining bursts of speed and resting the crew.
Of the 16 crews
that lined up for the start off Hale O Lono, 11 were from Oahu. There was one
each from Molokai, Hawaii and Kauai, and there was a lone California
entry—Marina del Rey, one of seven outrigger racing clubs in California. The
16th crew was the least probable—a bunch of marines from the Kaneohe Marine
Base on Oahu who had banded together less than three months earlier.
All told, there
were six koa canoes—beautiful, burnished vessels carved out of single logs cut
from Hawaii's largest native trees—and 10 made of fiber glass. Each canoe had a
mother boat carrying coaches and the reserve paddlers, and some had small, fast
Boston whalers to effect crew transfers. Each crew had a "secret"
strategy and one—the famed Outrigger Club of Honolulu—even had a secret
training diet. The Outrigger Club, with a smaller koa canoe than most, was
something of a dark horse. "We need rough weather," said Outrigger's
most spectacular athlete, Fred Hemmings Jr., a former world surfing champion.
"With good waves we can win."
Outrigger, the marines and Marina del Rey, which were predominantly haole, the
crews represented the usual Hawaiian mixture of race—haole, Hawaiian, Filipino,
Chinese, Japanese and so on. The economic mix was equally diverse—some boats
had corporation executives paddling behind laborers and white-collar clerks
spelling University of Hawaii students.
watchers know, all but the very best runners begin slowly, pacing and saving
themselves. Not outrigger canoe racers. When the crews jumped off at 7:24 a.m.
they were flat out in seconds, driving the canoes forward at 45 to 54 strokes a
minute. It soon became apparent that Outrigger's race strategy was, indeed,
something else. Cursed by the flat sea, Outrigger moved well south of the rhumb
line from Hale O Lono to Waikiki, looking for the waves that all Hawaiian
channels normally stir up just beyond their southern exits.
The first crew
change came at eight a.m., and for onlookers who had never seen the race
before, it was heart-stopping. The Outrigger Club whaler shot ahead of its
canoe, cut sharply across its course and dumped two relief paddlers in
Molokai's shark-filled waters on the rigger (port) side. As the canoe came up
to them, they ducked under the rig and two of the starters bailed out to
starboard as the relief men scrambled into their vacated positions. All of this
was done and the full stroke resumed in less than 15 seconds. The whaler picked
up the evacuees and quickly lifted them to the tender, to await their next